By CAROLYN LOCHHEAD
San Francisco Chronicle
April 27, 2007
From Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid's "the war is lost" comment last week to President Bush's characterizations of any limits on his war authority as "wrong for our troops and wrong for our country," both sides have steadily hardened their positions.
After narrow Senate approval Thursday of an enormous war spending bill containing withdrawal deadlines, Democrats promised to send the $124.4 billion legislation to the White House for Bush's assured veto on Tuesday - the four-year anniversary of the "Mission Accomplished" speech the president delivered aboard an aircraft carrier while wearing a flight suit.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino responded that the bill represents "Mission Defeated." Republicans said the deadlines were tantamount to surrender.
An unstable combination of personality, principle and political pressure pits a president determined not to relinquish any control over the war against an increasingly aggressive Democratic-led Congress backed by voters who want U.S. troops to leave Iraq.
"I don't know where it's taking us," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a freshman senator who has expressed doubts about Bush's surge strategy but backed the president in Thursday's 51-46 Senate vote. "What we don't need it to become is a battle of egos."
The operating assumption since the struggle began three months ago is that Bush ultimately will get the money he needs to continue the war for another year. Democrats barely passed the spending bill and have nowhere near the two-thirds majorities in either chamber to override a veto.
But the fight has arrived faster than either side expected, evolving week by week into an institutional power struggle. On one side are Democrats who contend that Congress has a constitutional right and a moral imperative to have a say in the war; on the other is a president who throughout his tenure has jealously guarded and expanded his presidential prerogatives and whose legacy is inextricably bound to Iraq.
"The rhetoric is escalating because, in part, each side wants to see who's going to jump out of the car first as they approach the edge of the cliff," said Jack Citrin, a University of California-Berkeley political scientist, "and because, of course, they genuinely hate each other, in my opinion."
Reid said Thursday it could take another month to cobble together a new spending bill, way past the time the administration said it needs the money, daring Bush's veto.
Democrats said they might drop the deadlines for troop withdrawals that Bush refuses to accept but insisted there will be other strings attached. They received support from Republican House leaders, for example, for requiring performance benchmarks for the Iraqi government.
Democrats also promised fights over the regular Defense Department authorization and spending bills that are coming up for consideration soon.
Republicans concede that time is on Democrats' side.
"The clock was ticking so loudly you could hardly hear the briefing," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a conservative California Republican, said after a closed-door war briefing from the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. "The clock is the American people's willingness to stick this out."
Although Republicans mostly held ranks behind the president in the House and Senate votes, signs of GOP impatience are obvious.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri said Wednesday: "We need to get some better results from Iraq."
Absent a dramatic turnaround in Iraq, Bush cannot rely on Republican support much longer, said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.
"They may have a vote or two left for him in them, but it's going to collapse at some point," Mann said. "He'll hold Republicans until summer, but there are too many of them on record, not just moderates but conservatives, saying this is our one last chance, and we will know by summer if it's working. If there isn't obvious evidence that it is, then I think that support collapses."
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